Pipeline Trial Focuses on Expropriation, not Environment

Trees in a cutback sit between a pipeline channel, left, and a new pipeline channel, on Bayou Sorrel in the Atchafalaya River Basin in Louisiana. (AP file photo/Gerald Herbert)

ST. MARTINVILLE, La. (CN) — Attorneys for three landowners who say Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC trespassed, cut down hardwood trees and buried a crude oil pipeline, effectively expropriating their land, expressed frustration Thursday at the conclusion of a trial that the judge will not allow more discussion of the public and environmental toll of pipelines and oil and gas in general.

“This corporation decided for purely financial reasons that they didn’t want to wait for due process [before seizing privately owned land and constructing on it],” said Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola Law School and one of the plaintiffs’ pro bono attorneys.

“Our position is very clear. We have a billion-dollar corporation, from Delaware, and it’s coming into Louisiana, violating our constitution, violating our state laws, violating the U.S. Constitution, all of which guarantee that people’s property is not taken without due process of law. This billion-dollar corporation decided — for purely financial reasons — that they didn’t want to wait [to construct their pipeline]. They knew for a year they didn’t have permission — not just from the three people listed in this suit but from hundreds of landowners in St. Martin Parish. They made a conscious decision. They knew it was illegal, and they went ahead and they got on that property,” Quigley said.

The 162-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline is jointly owned by Entergy Transfer Partners, which merged with Sunoco in 2012, and Phillips 66. It was designed to carry almost half a million gallons of crude oil a day across 11 Louisiana parishes and 700 water bodies, from Nederland, Texas to St. James Parish, roughly 50 miles from New Orleans. Louisiana has parishes rather than counties.

Energy Transfer Partners also built and owns the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline will be the final leg connecting the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota with Louisiana export terminals. Energy Secretary Rick Perry resigned from Energy Transfer Partners’ Board of Directors in late 2016 after being nominated to his current office by President Donald Trump. He had held the position ever since the end of his office as governor of Texas.

The three landowner plaintiffs in this case are represented pro bono by attorneys with Loyola University, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City and Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit.

They say Bayou Bridge asked for the 38-acre parcel of wetlands at issue through a lawsuit seeking expropriation in September, after the company had already made public statements that work on the pipeline was nearly complete.

Under Louisiana law, utilities have the authority to expropriate property if they can prove it is for the public benefit.

An Energy Transfer Partners spokesperson acknowledged during a Nov. 16 pretrial hearing that the company was not able to reach all of the hundreds of owners, nor obtain property rights to all of the 38-acre parcel of land.

“They admit that they didn’t have permission,” Quigley said outside the St. Martin Parish courthouse Thursday after the two-and-a-half day trial.

“They admit that there are hundreds of landowners that they didn’t get permission from and they just went ahead and did it anyway. They totally disregarded the constitution, disregarded state law.”

David Dismukes, Director of the Louisiana State University Center for Energy Studies testified Wednesday as a witness for Energy Transfer Partners that the pipeline will benefit the public because it will expand the state’s crude oil supply to petrochemical companies that create plastics, natural gas, jet fuel and more.

But Scott Eustis, community science director for the Gulf Restoration Network, testified that the pipeline will hurt Louisiana economically in the long run because it will reduce the federal money Louisiana receives from offshore oil revenue under the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which funds the state’s coastal restoration projects.

Eustis also said that overproduction from the pipeline will drive down the price of oil, which will hurt Louisiana’s economy.

St. Martin Parish Judge Keith Comeaux had been expected to rule from the bench Thursday but did not. A ruling is expected next week. In the meantime, both parties will file memos with the court estimating how much the plaintiffs are entitled to for their land.

Quigley said that ideally Bayou Bridge would remove the pipeline that has already been buried and return the property to its original state. Barring that, he said, plaintiffs will ask for a “substantial” sum of money for property damages. He said the three plaintiffs have promised to turn over the money to nonprofits benefiting Louisiana, if they receive damages.

“The judge should award these people enough money to warn this corporation, ‘Hey, just because you are worth a billion dollars, you still have to follow the law,’” Quigley said.

“The due process law doesn’t say ‘unless you are a small landowner,’ and it doesn’t say ‘unless you are a pipeline supporter.’ It says you have to follow the law. They didn’t follow the law. This was intentional.”

Pamela Spees, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said the judge did not allow testimony from plaintiffs related to the “flipside of the coin, which is the costs to Louisiana of the oil and gas industry — the cost to the coast, the cost to the environment, the cost to lives.”

She questioned how the judge can determine what the benefits of a pipeline will be if he does not also consider what the harms will be.

“Worldwide, the demand for oil is expected to be in a serious decline in the next five years,” Spees said, “and here we are having this pipeline, and they are touting it as though it’s going to bring this huge economic benefit to Louisiana, when the rest of the world knows the demand is declining — as it should be, given the report that the U.S. federal government just issued last Friday that shows that we are in an alarming state of crisis when it comes to climate change.”

That report, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which was issued by 13 federal agencies on Nov. 23, presents the direst warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the United States and suggests that if the U.S. immediately reduces its fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, it could save thousands of lives and generate billions of dollars in benefits for the nation.

Louisiana loses a football field size of land to erosion every hour, in part due to oil and gas infrastructure such as pipelines that crisscross the state. The state estimates that if no corrective action is taken, hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents will live in zones that will be underwater or on the verge of being underwater in the next 50 years.

“The only person who testified as to why we need more oil is a guy at LSU who they paid $10,000 to come up with 10 Power Point slides saying that the more pipelines we have the better,” Quigley said.

“‘The more refineries we have the better; the more oil and gas we do the better.’ He didn’t say anything about Cancer Alley. He didn’t say anything about destruction of the Atchafalaya Basin. He didn’t say anything about the destruction of the wetlands. He was paid by the Bayou Bridge guys just to come in and say, ‘More oil, more oil, more oil.’”

Cancer Alley is the riverine area along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, home to many gas, oil and chemical plants and cancer clusters.

Attorneys for Energy Transfer Partners declined speaking to the press Thursday. The company did not reply to an email request for comment.

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